Chelsea reached their third consecutive Continental Cup final with a convincing 3-1 victory over Manchester United. Emma Hayes’s Blues triumphed over Marc Skinner’s side for the second time this season as goals from Harder, Fleming and Carter booked their spot in the showcase final in March.
Emma Hayes had a limited pool of players due to international call-ups, injuries and illness. Zecira Musovic started in goal, with Carter and Andersson at full-back. Aniek Nouwen continued her impressive partnership with Millie Bright in the centre of defence. The midfield saw Sophie Ingle alongside Erin Cuthbert and Jessie Fleming. In a surprising pick, Niamh Charles started on the right of a front-three, with the more regular selection of Reiten on the left. Pernille Harder once again led the line.
Ahead of the game, much speculation was about whether Sam Kerr would start for Chelsea. The Australian superstar only returned from Asia Cup duty on Tuesday. However, she was named on a somewhat depleted bench. Youngsters Aimee Claypole and Emma Thompson joined new signing Alsu Abdullina, veteran Drew Spence, and first team stars Ann-Katrin Berger and Fran Kirby. Completing the bench was Lauren James, who was appearing against her former club.
Manchester United were unable to call on the services of the suspended Hayley Ladd and Ella Toone. New signing Jade Moore also wasn’t fit. However, United still named a strong side. Sophie Baggaley continued in goal. Former Blue Hannah Blundell and Maria Thorisdottir started, with Ona Batlle and Aoife Mannion completing the back four. Jackie Groenen returned from injury to partner Katie Zelem, whilst the much vaunted attacking trio of Vilda Boe Risa, Leah Galton and Alessia Russo all started. Classic No. 9 Martha Thomas was selected to spearhead the attack.
Mary Earps, Harris, Ivana Fuso and Kirsty Hanson were the familiar names on the United bench. Joining them were youngsters Smith and Jones, as well as new signings Dianne Caldwell and the exciting Signe Bruun. The young Danish attacker signed on transfer deadline day looked to add a new dimension of firepower to a potent United attack.
The opening twenty minutes was cagey, like a typical semi-final. The only chances of note fell to Martha Thomas and Pernille Harder. The former headed straight at Musovic following a penalty box scramble. The latter fired a shot over after good play from Reiten.
However, on the 25th minute, this combination would yield the opener. Reiten’s searching ball evaded a lazy United leg and bounced through to Pernille Harder. The rapid Dane teased and tormented Aoife Mannion one-on-one, twisting in and out. With her thoroughly sat down, she tucked it away with consummate ease.
The first goal United conceded since December left the defence shell-shocked. They quickly conceded a second minutes later. A Chelsea attack was disrupted due to Katie Zelem sustaining a knock to the head. However, the resulting drop-ball allowed Niamh Charles to race to the byline. Her cutback found Reiten and, despite a United block, the ball looped up into the air. Jessie Fleming gambled and rose highest, heading home to make it 2-0.
To United’s credit, they fought back almost instantly. On the 31st minute, neat interplay from Groenen and Risa saw the latter creep into the Chelsea box. Her shot from the angle was fierce and although Musovic tried to palm it away, she only succeeded in steering it further into her own net.
However, Chelsea once again seized the initiative and restored a two-goal lead with some impressive play. Pernille Harder seized a long pass and showed composure to find the on-rushing Erin Cuthbert. She moved the ball swiftly onto Sophie Ingle who played the ball into the channel for Reiten. A precise low cross from the Norwegian star found Jess Carter in the right place to sweep home the third.
Chelsea went into the break with one foot in the final and with United having all to do. It was surprising to not see Marc Skinner look to his bench at half-time to change the flow of the match.
However, United started the second half well and had several half-chances to get back into the match with Risa and Zelem seeing efforts blocked. Russo also headed wide from a Blundell cross. The pace of Pernille Harder continued to threaten on the counter for Chelsea, however.
The first changes for either side came mid-way through the half. Thomas and Groenen were replaced by Brrun and Fuso for the visitors, whilst Kerr replaced Fleming for the Blues. The Australian almost had a chance seconds after coming on, however, she was thwarted by her perennial nemesis: the offside flag.
Charles had an effort well blocked as Chelsea continued to look dangerous and pile on pressure chasing the fourth killer goal. The tie ended completely on the 77th minute. Hannah Blundell needlessly gave the ball away to Harder. The Dane floated a ball over the top for the ever-eager Sam Kerr to run onto. Keeper Baggaley clattered Kerr on the edge of the box, receiving her marching orders. Earps was drafted into the net, with the frustrated Russo withdrawn.
Cuthbert and Kerr both saw efforts blocked as the match petered out. Lauren James, Alsu Abdullina and Drew Spence made late appearances for the Blues replacing the peerless Harder, and the impressive Andersson and Reiten respectively. In the dying moments, Sophie Ingle blazed over from a good position, while Millie Bright attempted to kill someone in the stand with a wild effort from close range.
In the end, it was a comfortable progression to another cup final for Emma Hayes’s Chelsea. They will face either Manchester City or Tottenham Hotspur on 5 March 2022 at Plough Lane, and appear to be regaining some form after a stutter in December.
Manchester United continue to struggle in big games and against big players. Pernille Harder’s all-round play was on a different level to the United midfield and defence and she gave them a telling reminder of what might have been. Marc Skinner will need to regroup and re-energise his players ahead of the massive weekend clash with Arsenal.